Coloradans propose more taxpayer support for the local news. Here’s what that means.

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Gregory Moore (L), Mike Rispoli, and Nancy Watzman speak about public-sector support for local news at CU Denver in October 2019 (Photo courtesy of the Colorado Media Project)

On Monday, members of the Colorado Media Project took questions at CU Denver about the group’s new report “Local News is a Public Good” on a panel where they made the case for why the state’s public sector should get more involved in funding local journalism in various ways. I moderated the event, and a video of the discussion lives online here.

You can read the full research paper here, or a shorter executive summary here, but I thought I’d highlight some interesting numbers that jumped out at me as a I dug into the 30-page report with a class of Colorado College students last week.

  • “Between the impending Gannett-GateHouse merger and the Alden portfolio, investment firms are set to own 24 Colorado properties representing 28% of the state’s total newspaper circulation by the end of 2019.”
  • “…today in Colorado, there are about 10 public relations professionals for every one professional journalist.”
  • “The state lost 33 newspapers – almost one out of every five of our papers – between 2004 and 2019.”
  • “30 Colorado counties have only one newspaper. Eighty-three percent of these papers are only published weekly and have an average circulation of 3,701. Most – 83% – serve residents in non-metro areas, with 40% located in Colorado’s most rural counties.”
  • “Baca County currently has no newspaper and is one of the most rural and economically distressed counties in Colorado.”
  • “At least 44 Colorado newspapers have owners who are approaching retirement age and may be or will be looking to sell their papers and exit the business, according to a Colorado Press Association estimate.”

And here are some interesting non-numbers-related nuggets from the report:

  • “Low-income, minority, and marginalized communities in both metro and rural areas are more likely to lack access to local news and journalism than are white, affluent communities.”
  • “…the opportunity is ripe for local communities to test new models and develop new revenue streams for sustaining high quality local journalism that meets critical public information needs.”
  • “Currently, Colorado Public Radio (CPR) employs the only reporter covering the Colorado delegation in the U.S. Congress and is the only Colorado newsroom with significant growth plans, aiming to employ a force of 70 reporters by the end of 2020.”

And the nut: “Colorado Media Project leaders believe that public funding can add another slice to the revenue pie for local journalism and help inject innovation into the industry.”

OK, so how would Colorado actually do that?

The proposal lays out five specific ideas with the implementation process coming from the legislature to the local ballot box in communities, among other ways. Like…

  • “Legislators could create a unique special district framework to establish governance and fund use requirements specifically designed to support the production of independent local journalism and civic information. … Local voters and/or governments would then have the option of establishing Local News and Information Special Districts that levy taxes for these services.” (“…the CMP working group noted that it’s a solution more likely to gain traction in more affluent communities with the inclination to raise local taxes for special services.”)
  • “Create and fund a state-level, public-private partnership to stimulate local media innovation and prioritize the needs of underserved rural, low-income, and racial and ethnic communities.” (“Colorado is one of only 15 U.S. states that does not provide state funding to support local independent public media outlets, which together are overwhelmingly America’s most trusted news sources.”)
  • “Develop programs that help commercial media outlets convert to employee or audience ownership, nonprofit or public benefit corporations, and other mission-driven models and provide state tax incentives for owners who donate community news assets and seed philanthropic trusts to meet local civic information needs.” (“OEDIT, the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center … a nonprofit advocating for employee ownership … and other experts could reach out to local newspaper owners to explain the value of converting to employee ownership and describe the resources available to help them work through the process.” … “The Colorado legislature could also create incentives for owners to donate their newspapers, brands, properties, or other local news assets to a community foundation or nonprofit entity that would operate it for a specified time, such as 10 or 15 years.”)
  • “Increase support for libraries and higher education to help meet basic community news and information needs, as these existing institutions are well positioned to play new roles, particularly in news deserts, where no independent local media exist.” (“If the library is open to embracing an expanded role, advocates could gather community support to raise funds via redirecting existing municipal budgets or a new local tax to support the expanded library services and/or formation of an independent library district.” (“The only caveat we have for adding local news to the menu of library services relates to governance. Currently, Colorado state law requires local government officials to approve library district board members. Because many library districts are contained within one municipality, this governance structure has the potential to limit the independence of a newsroom operating within a library.” … “the CMP recommends creating a new type of special district that specifically protects local news independence from government interference via a governing board elected directly by residents of the district. Alternatively, the state legislature could amend the library district statute to allow governing boards to be directly elected by constituents, an idea that was proposed but not advanced in the 2019 legislative session.”)
  • “Optimize government transparency for civic engagement by modernizing the ways state and local entities conduct open meetings, gather and report public data, and make information accessible to citizens and the news media and more useful for civic engagement.” (Basically update our state’s open records laws.)

This is just my own condensed version of their 30-page report, so I recommend you actually read the whole thing and dig into the details— especially if you have questions about it. (Editor’s note: I hope you have questions about it.)

What did panelists say beyond the report?

Not too much new information came from Monday’s Q-and-A that included former Denver Post editor Gregory Moore, DU College of Computer Science and Engineering dean JB Holston, Free Press News Voices director Mike Rispoli, Colorado Media Project director Nancy Watzman, and First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg.

One thing I learned, though, is that members of the CMP have already been talking to lawmakers in both parties. “A lot of Rs look at it and say, ‘Gee, that’s an economic development, Colorado-innovation, small-business development opportunity,’” Holston said. “Those on the other side of the aisle resonate with the notion that democracy is at risk.” When I asked who the lawmakers they’ve spoken to are, he declined to give names. It’s early in their process, and the CMP wants to gauge reactions to these proposals now that they’re out there, so I suppose I shouldn’t expect too many specifics at this point. Holston added: “I think the other notion is, when you have a one-party state, the other party doesn’t mind having journalists to the same degree.”

Another aspect is the support of the idea of taxpayer support for local news by Zansberg, a First Amendment attorney I noted likely spends plenty of his time telling governments to stay out of the news business. “I came to this realization and have become a supporter of this initiative reluctantly,” he said. “But necessity is the mother of invention. … Times have changed … the status quo is a crisis.” The First Amendment, he said bars government from interfering with the press but it doesn’t say anything about government not funding the press. “We the people can fund a public good,” he said, but concerns could involve picking winners and losers, and viewpoint discrimination. He said any of the five proposals all require insulation— the same way private advertising at traditional outlets are insulated from affecting news coverage. He also warned about the possibility that government funding could become so essential that its withdrawal could silence the press. Plans in the report, he said, don’t suggest government funding to become the sole source of any news organization, but merely support other revenue streams.

“I think if you compare the dangers of governmental interference through funding to the status quo of ‘We do nothing’ and the trends you’ve seen continue, I’m on board, I think it’s well worth exploring,” Zansberg said.

Rispoli wrapped up the panel with advice: “Don’t listen to the haters,” he said.

Once it was over, a voice from the crowd boomed, “Get down to southern Colorado. We need your help.” It was John Rodriguez, publisher of PULP newsmagazine in Pueblo. “We need you to get out of Denver,” he said. “If you guys think you’re in crisis, let me tell you when you’ve had your pipeline cut, when you have your students not going to CSU Pueblo— we are in a crisis that is beyond what Denver can even imagine. And we have survived without any help, without any real notice…. I’m a loudmouth … and I don’t come from this world, so I will be a loud mouth on this, but we need your help, the San Luis Valley needs your help, Grand Junction needs your help. Please get down to Southern Colorado, San Luis Valley, Grand Junction, they need your support. We can’t always afford your support, but we need your support. So please help us.”

What did students think about it?

Roughly a dozen Colorado College students spent their last couple days in my recent journalism class reading and thinking about the report, and they attended Monday’s panel. Some samplings from student reflections:

    • “Based on … reading … the proposal, class discussion, and finally attending this panel, I do believe that the public should support local news in the form of a 2.9% state sales tax on digital ads.”
    • “One of the best parts of the experience was the journalist from Southern Colorado challenging the panel and the initiative to be more active in that part of the state. … I applaud his effort to involve the people that matter most in this initiative, the people who actually experience the brunt of the issue.”
    • “I really enjoyed speaking with a high school English teacher about his desire to have his students cover local beats, and help mitigate news deserts. … I know I certainly would have loved to gain practical, interesting and fun real world writing experience in high school.”
    • “One question that I had after the event was who was in the audience besides our class?”
    • “I do believe that the public should support local print news media, similar to how it already supports public radio and public television broadcasting. I think that the tax revenue model should be very similar in nature to the preexisting programs for tv and radio.”
    • “Who knew that in order to fund local journalism within a state-level framework, it comes down to $1.75 per adult resident annually? Not I. In a state in which the population has “exploded” (per Melissa Davis), a little less than $2 per person could go a long way in supporting local journalism. I’m not an Econ major, but that seems feasible.”
    • “The reasons why the panelists seemed to divert some questions might have been the lack of time.”
    • “When news organizations take money from various groups, it’s necessary for them to manage and explain the relationship and how it relates to their coverage.”
    • “It was exciting to see a crowd of former reporters, a documentary-making crew, and other members of society come together in order to invest in the future of journalism.” (Editor’s note: That crew was from filmmaker Rick Goldsmith’s upcoming doc “Stripped for Parts: American Journalism at the Crossroads.” So watch out for that.)

How local media covered the rollout 

A day before the CU Denver event, Moore and his former newspaper rival John Temple who edited The Rocky Mountain News had a dual byline on a column published in news outlets across the state. Just that alone is controversial, Moore joked on Monday. True enough. But the old foes joined forces to explain why they’re behind this call for public sector support for local news in Colorado.

From the column:

At one time, we believed that competition was the key to the kind of reporting that answers those questions. After all, it was competition that pressured us to dig up original stories and invest in new coverage areas when we were competing newspaper editors. Today, we realize collaboration may be even more important than competition. We want to offer solutions about how the public interest can continue to be served. It is a moment for experimentation and creativity. That is why we believe it’s critical that Coloradans now seriously consider the project’s fundamental recommendation that public support — yes, the use of tax dollars — be one of the steps the state takes to help sustain and develop local public-service journalism. …

We wish things were different. We kind of enjoyed being competitors. And never really wanted it to end. But end it has. Whatever the future holds, we believe journalism must survive to illuminate the state’s trials and triumphs, to reveal who we are and help us see who we can be. To do nothing is too high a price to pay.

Following Monday’s public panel discussion, some local outlets published write-ups.

Later in the week, the Colorado Media Project and Free Press teamed up for a localized presentation and workshop on local news in Longmont. The Longmont Times-Call covered it, and The Longmont Observer has a video of the event.

Speaking of Longmont…

The nonprofit Longmont Observer won a $155,000 contract from the city to provide public, educational and governmental television services for the city and viewers, according to The Boulder Daily Camera. The move didn’t come without local criticism. The daily Times-Call newspaper, owned by the same hedge-fund-controlled company that owns The Denver Post, published this unflattering headline: “Longmont Observer publisher denies any improprieties in competing for city contract.” Matt Sebastian, a former editor in Boulder County now at The Denver Post, published a multi-day thread about the issue, raising questions about how a local news outlet could adequately report on a city with which it has a contract and pointing to key details missing in the Observer’s coverage of the issue as evidence for suspicion.

The digital nonprofit news outlet acknowledged the turbulent process in how it came into a working relationship with the local government. “We know that not everyone loves that the Longmont Observer was awarded the contract, but we will work hard to change that,” the Observer’s president, Sergio Angeles, said in an Observer story.

Observer co-founder and publisher Scott Converse underscored tensions between the news outlets when I pointed out Sebastain’s Twitter thread and Converse referred to the author as a “for-profit hedge fund owned zombie newsroom reporter.” (Happy Halloween!) He speculated money provided by the contract with the city “will drop to zero over time as the cable franchise fee continues to drop as people cut the cord and cable TV dies a slow death” and views the contract as “effectively, seed money that goes away over the next few years.” He said the Observer will be separate from a public access media makerspace he plans to create. Converse added:

A media makerspace, that other local news and information providers (like the Observer and other news providers, or the public library, or schools, businesses and even individuals) can leverage off of, we believe, is one way to fill the news and information gap in local civic information infrastructure that’s essential to a healthy 21st century community. It’s very much time for something new. Is this the answer? We don’t know, but we’re going to give it our all and find out.

So this should be one to watch. In the debate about a library taxing district as a public revenue stream for local news, a major question was how to keep any news operation independent of those it covers, which is an important element of journalism.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Greeley Tribune reported how early testing for breast cancer is “key to detection.” The Steamboat Pilot reported how longtime resort employees were evicted from their housing under a new lease policyThe Loveland Reporter-Herald examined conservation easementsThe Longmont Times-Call covered local domestic violence prevention efforts. In part of its series on mental health, The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported on what the city might learn from an Oklahoma nonprofit when it comes to housingThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel covered how cattle ranchers are handling challenges to their industryThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins continued its series on homelessness with a look at how while affordable housing can help, it’s “easier said than done.” The Durango Herald went with an indirect poop joke in a front-page above-the-fold headlineThe Denver Post profiled one of the surviving Black 14 University of Wyoming football players kicked off the team 50 years ago for wanting to protest BYUThe Boulder Daily Camera reported how local police are using drones.

In ‘Seeking Shelter,’ The Coloradoan launched a ‘longterm investigation’ into homelessness

Over the past few years of writing this newsletter’s section highlighting Sunday front page newspaper coverage from across the state, I’ve noticed some trends. One of them is just how widespread homelessness is in Colorado cities, and just how differently each municipality is handling it. On any given Sunday in Colorado, it seems, the issue of how people living here are experiencing homelessness is captured on a newspaper’s front page. (Last week wasn’t any different. Look at The Coloradoan in Fort Collins and The Durango Herald 400 miles away.)

Recently, the Gannett-owned Coloradoan launched a new series focused on examining how Fort Collins is dealing with homelessness. Called, “Seeking Shelter,” the project is “a long-term investigation into the city’s proposal to battle issues of homelessness with a centralized campus.”

From Coloradoan editor Eric Larsen:

When Coloradoan business reporter Pat Ferrier broke the story of the city of Fort Collins and philanthropist Pat Stryker collaborating on a potential centralized campus for homeless services in June, I knew we had landed on something important. …

In the coming weeks, Ferrier and fellow Coloradoan journalists Kevin Duggan, Jacy Marmaduke and Bethany Baker will dive deep into the genesis of this proposal, providing you insight from Fort Collins’ homeless residents and service providers, along with a look at city leaders’ inspiration for a centralized campus.

This week, Duggan will focus on what existing providers call the most critical need for a centralized campus — a housing-first focus. Next week, Ferrier and Baker will take you inside Haven for Hope, the San Antonio campus that city leaders have cited as inspiration for the local proposal. And in two weeks, Marmaduke will take you inside the lives of those experiencing homelessness in Fort Collins to examine how access gaps in existing services present significant roadblocks on the path to self-sufficiency.

The Coloradoan will also launch “2020 Vision,” a new digital opinion initiative in conjunction with this series. We know that it will take the best efforts of an involved community to land on appropriate solutions, and we’re excited to relaunch our opinion forum alongside this effort.

That new opinion initiative is important, given how the Coloradoan earlier this year nuked its Opinion section to cut costs amid nationwide layoffs by its corporate giant. The series has been in the works since July, Larsen writes, and it included 250 staff hours already, and $1,500 to fly reporters to two Texas cities to see how officials there are similarly tackling homelessness. Larsen’s write-up about “Seeking Shelter” is free to read and not behind the paper’s paywall as a public service. But if you want to help this northern Colorado newspaper with its ability to take on this project, consider joining me in subscribing to it for as little as 99-cents per month for three months.

Another reporter opens up about personal trauma

As more local journalists open up about mental health challenges involved in the job, I want to keep highlighting them. This newsletter has spotlighted reporters who suffer anxiety or have PTSD and have publicized their experiences with it.

This week, KUSA 9News reporter Jeremy Jojola published a post on Medium about his own struggles following his reporting on the STEM charter school shooting this spring. From “The day I broke as a journalist“:

While I’ve been to therapy before, I’ve never brought up my challenges at work and I plan to explore talking about these feelings in a future session someday. We are supposed to have thick skins in this business and not reveal our weaknesses in the face of deadlines and newsroom obligations. We have a job to do and if we can’t do it, many others are waiting to do it. At least that’s how things go in many newsrooms across the country. The public and news managers want journalists to have thick skins and perhaps the portrayal of the tough reporter often seen in film gives people the impression we can take their insults and threats. We shouldn’t complain, right? But, we are not robots and even so, robots can still break. Our mental health is just as important as our physical health and without our minds, we can’t effectively do our jobs.

Read the entirety of what one fellow reporter called Jeremy’s “brave” piece here.

Other Colorado media odds and ends

I’m about to hit my word count this week, but I wanted to round up some other items for you to read and consider before ending this.

The Intercept has a story about how the company that owns The Denver Post and a dozen or so other Colorado newspapers has plans to outsource “California news design to the Philippines, paying pennies on the dollar for work that once employed professionals who lived in the communities they served.” The piece also included this:

At the Denver Post, the company is pushing the envelope even further. In bargaining talks with union leaders this summer, Digital First pushed for the right to use artificial intelligence to cover high school sports. They also hope to allow computers to “gather and publish” municipal government news, including “local news stories from suburban communities, school districts and other governmental districts,” according to a company proposal obtained by The Intercept. Denver Post union official Tony Mulligan said the company has already selected a vendor and budgeted money for the prep sports transition.

UPDATE: AI is already here. Check out the author archive.

I’d also like to point out the journalists who were recently inducted into the Denver Press Club’s Hall of Fame: Sam Adams, Mike Landess, Tina Griego, John Sunderland and, (posthumously), Bob Martin.

An alternative to ‘no comment’

Typically if a subject of potentially accountability-driven journalism doesn’t want to engage with a reporter on an upcoming story, they ignore an interview request, email, voicemail, text message or otherwise, or offer a simple “No comment.” Sometimes they will engage on background or off the record and ask a reporter to simply say the source declined to comment for the record.

So this was a new one. It appeared in a ColoradoPolitics story by reporter Marianne Goodland that uncovered how taxpayer-funded staff members at the state legislature are earning extra private income from political committees. Here’s the quote from a source she approached for comment:

“I know it’s of utmost importance for you and your liberal friends to document for your readers all the details about our political operations. That’s not happening. It’s also abundantly clear you would get your journalistic jollies being able to say in print I didn’t respond. You have my response. And I expect it to be printed in its entirety.”

While clearly not helpful, I guess I appreciate a comment like that if I’m getting paid by the word.

*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE

1 COMMENT

  1. “Coloradans propose more taxpayer support for the local news. Here’s what that means.”

    Beware the law of unintended consequences.

    What happens, if governments start investing in journalism & news, when facism grows within that government?

    Whom then draws the line between “news” and state-sponsored propaganda?

    “After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, all of the regular press came under complete Nazi editorial control through the policy of Gleichschaltung, and short-lived propaganda newspapers were also established in the conquered territories during World War II.”

    Sure, the “left”may now relish at the thought of a “left”-leaning state government investing in the media, but what happens when the partisan tides change?
    They will change at some point.

    The government is already way too involved in business as is.

    Beware your calls for greater socialism (central control of economic & business activities).
    Socialism doesn’t necessarily mean greater equality.

    Socialist structures can, and often are constructed to benefit the wealthy elite.
    We’re seeing that now in the U.S.

    Increasing mergers of public & corporate entities led to vast losses of freedoms, liberties and justice for “commoners” in 18th century England.
    This was a substantial influence for the American Revolution.
    Read Cato’s Letters.

    Big government is no cure for big business.
    The two often unite, to the detriment of the people.

    The smart, ambitous & proactive, rather than whining about deficiencies (in say, numbers of media outlets), find opportunities, take private action & make solutions happen.

    Stop relying on big daddy guberment to “fix” everything for you.

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